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Inspired stories about artisan wine and taste makers.
by L.M. Archer FWS, Bourgogne ML
Today’s Exclusive Interview:
Kevin Morrisey’s life reads like a movie script – not surprising, given his former profession. The storyline reads something like this: Cinematographer turns wine maker. Wine maker lands gigs with legends like Jean-Claude Berrouet of Bordeaux’s Château Pétrus before settling in at Old-World inspired Ehlers Estate in Napa.
Today, the Red Thread™ talks to Kevin Morrisey about his unconventional career path, incredible good fortune, and the fine art of wine making.
r/T ™: What made you leave cinematography for wine making? Any similarities between the two ‘art’ forms?
KM: I loved working with cameras and lighting, working on productions, and shooting in visually amazing locales with all sorts of talented artists. It was great. But as a line of work it was very “fast lane” and felt more suited to young single people, and I wasn’t planning on being a young single person all my life.
I was always an international spirit. In college I hung out with an international crowd, and we were into wine, cooking, talking, and staying at the table for hours and hours enjoying bottles and bottles. I’d take trips to wine country, actually many wine regions, and so I made a conscious decision to change careers, or rather re-invent myself. That meant going back to grad school at Davis full-time – a huge commitment, but I’ve never looked back. I’ve been very lucky.
There are many similarities between filmmaking and winemaking. When you approach your work as an artist, it’s the same. You have ingredients, script, actors, vineyards, terroir, weather; you have a vision, you have a crew, you need organization, you have a lot of expensive equipment and need to employ and manage a lot of specialized technical help.
You need to master the technical and scientific aspects so that you can free up the artistic and creative process. You have editing, you have blending. And in the end, you have a finished product which will be appreciated, discussed, and critiqued by others. And then you start on a new production or vintage and apply what you learned from the last one. For me it’s all the same, and the organizational experience I’d had in the film world made it very easy for me to take over an intense winemaking facility.
r/T ™: Do you consider wine making more of an art, or a science? Which part of wine making do you enjoy most?
KM: Winemaking is a natural process. And it’s high stakes. I get to make wine from grapes once a year, so yes, I better have a solid understanding of the science that I’m dealing with. Thinking scientifically gets me through the fermentation process and into barrels, with clean, sound, balanced dry wines that have been maximally protected from any premature deterioration, be it microbial or oxidative. That’s the science of capturing the best that the fruit has to offer. But as far as the big picture’s concerned, it’s a creative process all the way. Science has always been inextricably connected to the creative. I love the whole journey every year. I even love bottling. It’s when we get to sign and frame the art we’ve created.
r/T ™: You have an enviable list of mentors spanning both Old and New worlds, including Jean-Claude Berrouet at Château Pétrus in Bordeaux, and Robert Brittan of Stags’ Leap Winery in Napa. How has each mentor influenced you as a wine maker? Any ‘voice’ haunt you more than the others while you’re in the vineyard or cellar?
KM: I’ve been very fortunate. And don’t forget Tony Soter of Etude. I was with him for two years, and he was extremely generous with his knowledge and experience. And Bob Bolan, a brilliant winemaker, who is now at Bremmer. It takes a long time to make a bottle of wine, and learning to taste and blend and manage the production from Brittan and all those others we mentioned is a debt I hope to someday repay. The yogis say that when you’re ready to listen everyone is your teacher. I hear the voices of all my mentors and teachers all the time in the cellars and in the vineyard—except when I’m blending, then I close the door, blast the rock and roll music and go it alone!
r/T ™: You have dual French/American citizenship. How, if at all, does this duality inform your philosophy/approach to wine making?
KM: It’s not so much the French / American aspect. We got the French nationality formalized so our daughters would have options and opportunities to live, work, or go to school in Europe. But it’s true that I’m not really a California boy either. I’m international in my approach to everything. Making wines with a sense of place is easier when you’ve experienced life in a lot of other places.
r/T ™: Ehlers Estates vineyards are certified organic. Why is farming organically so important to you as a wine maker?
KM: Let’s just say that making wine or preparing food for people is a very intimate act. I’m making something that I am then asking you to take inside your body. That’s quite personal, and it’s a responsibility that I take very seriously. So yes, all organic. I like to eat that way at home and I’m glad that we do that at work. Also it’s more fun to spread manure and compost than bags of chemicals. The big thing is also synthetic chemical pesticides. I just don’t want any living thing exposed to that stuff.
r/T ™: Talk about the terroir of Ehlers Estate. It’s a contiguous estate vineyard, painstakingly assembled by owners Jean and Sylviane Leducq with the assistance of legendary enologist Jacques Boissenot. Briefly touch on how the terroir(s) within the five (5) major blocks differ, and how these differences, in conjunction with the vineyard’s unique microclimate, influence varietals/flavor profiles? Do you have a favorite site?
KM: Basically, the land at the base of the hills that run the western side of the Napa Valley is comprised of cobbly, rocky, super well-drained loamy soils. It’s referred to as the bench. Nothing like “valley floor,” which is heavier soil with a lot more clay. Below St. Helena you have Rutherford, Oakville, Yountville; all that benchland on the west side of the valley is pretty golden cabernet soil. North of St. Helena, the bench continues, and there are a bunch of great properties sitting here on that very same benchland. The highest ground at Ehlers Estate is on a soil type called Perkins Loam, and most of the rest of the estate is on Bale Loam. These are winemakers’ dream soils. We also have a little hill out back that is much older volcanics, called Aikens Loam, which makes for a very complex and spicy Cabernet. Aikens Loam is what you find on Howell Mountain. All of our land is stellar. It’s pretty warm up here, and quite breezy too. We’re at the narrowest point of the valley, what we call the pinch. The winds are stronger and that cools us down quiet nicely on the hot summer afternoons. The signature of our terroir, for me, is the tannin quality. Great vineyards are considered great because of the tannins, and if there is one common theme among all of the wines from this estate, all varieties, all vintages, it’s the tannin structure. Powerful wines that are at once chewy and velvety smooth, soft, well structured, with a long finish. You can’t achieve that with winemaking tricks, that’s the land. The “1886” Cabernet is a blend of the Perkins parcels and the little hill.
r/T ™: As a wine maker, anything in particular about Napa Valley and/or St. Helena that inspires you most, compared to other wine regions? Any vintage for which you’re especially proud? Any challenging vintage(s)?
KM: Well 2011 was a challenging vintage, cold and rainy, very non-Californian. We made very good wines that year, but I’m sure glad that wasn’t my first vintage as a winemaker or it might have been a disaster! I love making wine here in Napa Valley, and I love this estate. There are so many great wines being made from so many different regions around the world and when you drink those wines its like taking a trip to their origins. One of the things I appreciate here is that all of our wines are top-tier, all 100% estate, so all of our wines taste like handmade wines that come from our forty acres. The Cabernet Franc, Merlot, and Sauvignon Blanc, Petit Verdot, “1886” all taste like part of a family; siblings with common traits and individual charms and personalities.
r/T ™: Anything else you care to share about Ehlers Estate?
KM: I should mention that we’re one of those historic California Wineries, established in 1886. We receive the guests for tastings in the old stone winery building. All of our vineyards are right here. We’ll show the visitors anything they want to see. We’re definitely worth a visit. I love to make the rounds of the tasting room whenever I can to greet customers and answer questions. It’s a pretty special place.
r/T ™: Finally, if your experience as a winemaker has taught you anything, it’s taught you…?
KM: …that in the end, it’s just wine.
All proceeds from the sale of Ehlers Estate wines funds international cardiovascular research through the philanthropic Leducq Foundation.
The etched heart logo on each bottle of Ehlers Estate wine reflects this.
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